I’ve seen, or heard of, very few miracles in my 34 years of watching the sport of Horse Racing. There is no question in my mind that 2012 Haskell winner Paynter not only makes that short list, but could very well be perched on top of it.
I thought about it over this past weekend and really, truly only could come up with three true miracles in recent memory.
Back in 1971 (ok, 42 years ago isn’t recent memory but work with me here), Hoist The Flag was unbeaten in six career starts (albeit he was DQ-ed in one of those wins, The Champagne Stakes, for interference early in the race), had great breeding (Tom Rolfe-Wavy Navy by War Admiral) and was blessed with nothing short of electrifying speed.
As a two year old in 1970, no one could get near him. He was voted two year old champion colt that year and, after given some time off to rest his sore from shins on a farm in Camden, South Carolina, he came back in 1971 even stronger.
Mrs. Jimmy Kilroe, wife of the Santa Anita racing secretary said “Hoist The Flag represented the right combination in every way: good breeding, managed perfectly, not over-raced, well rested over the winter. Everything was just perfect for him to become a super hero—which American racing desperately needs.”
He won an overnight allowance race at Bowie Race Course by 15 lengths on March 12 1971, then came right back (8 days later) on March 20 and won the Bay Shore Stakes at Aqueduct Racetrack in New York by seven lengths while setting a new track record.
However, fate had a different plan for racing’s newest super-star.
On March 30, 1971, Hoist The Flag had just completed a five furlong work, in preparation for the Gotham Stakes, at Belmont Park. But about a sixteenth of a mile into his gallop out Hoist The Flag took a bad step and shattered the pastern bone and fractured the cannon bone in his right rear leg. . “He stopped so suddenly,” said jockey Jean Cruguet, “I knew something awful was wrong.”
He was put in the horse ambulance and was quickly sent back to his barn.
After seeing the X rays Alfred Vanderbilt, chairman of the New York Racing Association at that time, said, “It looked like a hammer had shattered an ice cube.”
Hoist The Flag was taken from the barn and vanned across the street to a veterinarian clinic. (Which, some years later, would be the same one that the great Ruffian was brought to after her catastrophic injury).
There, he underwent a six-hour operation. The cannon bone was not too badly broken and was put back together with a pin. But the pastern was obliterated and had to be completely put back together in an injury that was eerily similar to Barbaro’s in the 2006 Preakness.
Hoist The Flag came out of the operation well, his leg encased in a huge metal and fiber-glass cast. Although for the first few days he wasn’t able to figure out how to lie down, he seemed comfortable enough. The concern was that the rebuilt pastern would fail to heal correctly and that Gangrene or Laminits or Colic or a myriad of other problems might develop. ….but miraculously ….none did.
Hoist The Flag recovered enough to live to the age of 12 and became of the more influential stallions in history. Among his offspring (in one way or another) include: Alleged 1977 European Horse of the Year and a two-time winner of the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (1977, 1978), the great Personal Ensign, Broad Brush, Stalwart, Sacahuista and a horse that would leave a lasting impression on me, Linkage. (Linkage was second in the 1982 Preakness Stakes and, just about 30 years to the day, on June 18, 1983, would thoroughly thrash an allowance field. But it wasn’t just any old allowance field, it was the very first race yours truly, a young groom at the time, led a horse over to the Belmont Park paddock to run in a race.)
The fact that Hoist the Flag lived nine more years after an injury like that (and remember, medical technology was far less advanced in the early 70’s) is a complete miracle from where I sit.
The second miracle that I thought about was the Triple Crown run of Secretariat. I’m sure by now you know all the accolades but, to me, they never get old.In the 1973 Kentucky Derby, the big red monster ran each quarter faster that the previous one (:251⁄5, :24, :234⁄5, :232⁄5, and :23, which, in and amongst itself, is a mindboggling accomplishment) on his way to a still standing Derby record of 1:59.2.
Secretariat’s Preakness is known for perhaps the single greatest “move” in the history of the sport.
The enormous colt by Bold Ruler went from last to first on the first turn (that’s turn…not straightway) at Pimlico in the blink of an eye. To this day, and no matter how many times I watch the replay, it gives me chills.
The 1973 Belmont Stakes is called one of the greatest performances ever by an athlete on two legs or four, this race was a nothing short of a tour-de-force.
The great Chic Anderson, who called the race, actually said (as they were leading Secretariat into the winners circle) “An amazing, unbelievable performance by this miracle horse!”
This race was so powerful I actually gave it its own article that can be viewed by clicking this link >> Secretariat
The only other miracle that came to mind was the aforementioned Barbaro.
On May 20, 2006, Barbaro ran in the Preakness Stakes as a heavy favorite after annihilating the field in the Kentucky Derby just two weeks earlier.
Like Hoist The Flag, Barbaro also took a bad step shortly after the start and fractured three bones (cannon bone, pastern and fetlock) into 20 different pieces. The X-rays to me looked like someone put a small stick of dynamite in his leg and lit it.
The day after the race, Dr Dean Richardson of the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center (a place I’ve unfortunately been to with injured horses) performed a five hour operation and fused the fetlock and pastern joints to stabilize the leg and make it strong enough for Barbaro to walk on. He then inserted 27 screws into the colt’s injured leg to stabilize it even more.
Albeit, Barbaro’s initial healing started off well, he did not have the same results or luck that Hoist The Flag had. As time went on, he encountered several major set backs incuding infections, laminitis in both rear legs, and an absess in his foot so big it had to be surgically removed.
In January of 2007, and with laminitis now attacking his front legs, Barbaro could not rest comfortably on any of his legs. The decision was made to euthanized him on January 29, 2007.
I thought it was a flat miracle that this courageous animal was able to survive some 33 weeks after a injury like that.
I witnessed another miracle this past Friday at Hollywood Park in California as Paytner, who in my mind was pronounced dead several weeks after his huge Haskell win, blew out a strong allowance field.
If you recall, Paynter spiked a temperature due to an abscess in his colon at Monmouth Park just days after his Haskell win. He was sent to a New Jersey clinic, then to the Upstate Equine Medical Center in New York, and the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center of Veterinary Medicine and finally had the abscess removed October 3.
Along the way, he was treated for colitis, he had his feet fitted with casts after showing signs of laminitis and lost almost 200 lbs as his weight fell to the 900-pound range.
After the surgery, he recovered in Maryland at the FairHill Center and returned to trainer Bob Baffert’s barn on December 29.
In his first race back, Paynter broke from post 2 in the eight-horse field and the good looking son of Awesome Again took the early lead with Majestic City in close pursuit. Those two ripped the opening quarter in :22.3 but Paynter was able to establish a half-length lead while cutting the first half mile in :45.3.
As they turned for home, Paynter came a bit wide while completing six-furlongs a quick 1:09.2. At that point he increased his lead from 2 ½ lengths to 4 ½ lengths under the wire while still “under wraps” by jockey Raphael Bejarano.
He stopped the clock in an outstanding 1.21.4 for the seven furlongs
Bejarano, who was aboard Paynter for his 3 3/4-length Haskell win, said:
“I had a lot of pressure in the first part of the race, but I knew I had a lot of horse underneath me. I had a lot of confidence in this horse and I knew he was going to win easily. We had a fantastic trip.”
“This was a celebration of life,” owner Ahmed Zayat said afterward.
“He is just an incredible, phenomenal horse,” added Baffert. “I can’t believe he is back. He’s just a great horse.”
“He is so courageous,” Zayat said. “He’s a true trooper, a special horse. He loves to do what he does, which is what he did today. What else can you say? Thank you, thank you Lord.”
Paynter, readers, is a true miracle horse and story.
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